Mon | May 1, 2017

Cashing in on mushrooms

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2015 | 4:00 AMNeville Graham

Jamaica at last count was importing $35 million worth of mushrooms annually, and there is an emerging network of female farmers seeking to take a portion of that market.

The Network of Women for Food Security (NOW), which operates out of central and northern Manchester, is pulling together a group to grow mushrooms for supply high-end restaurants, hotels and other players in the food industry.

"We just got signed off on $43 million of the $54 million needed to really get us started, and by May we should be gradually building up to full production," said NOW leader Pauline Smith.

NOW is a collective of '50-something' women, numbering about 20. The group has taken the mushroom project from concept to nearly full funding and the infant stages of production in under one year.

The collective now has a building that will house its processing operation, laboratory, test kitchens and a spore germination facility.

By late April, they will begin delivering packaged compost to be used for growing the mushrooms, so that by May, small-scale production would be under way.

"We already have orders for button mushrooms, Oysters, Shitake, Lion's Mane and Chicken of the Woods. They have asked us put them on the list for supply two or three times per week," Smith said, referring to prospective hotel and restaurant clients.

full production capacity

When the NOW collective is up to full production capacity, the group should be producing a combined 7,700kg of various mushroom varieties, which annualised represents about half of the amount imported.

The $35 million value on imports was up to 2012.

To meet production targets, NOW will utilise 10 grow houses. Each house is to be run by two women.

In addition, Food For The Poor is expected to supply another 25 grow houses spread out over the central and northern Manchester. Six women will run each of these houses measuring 5x5 metres (16x16 feet). The expected turnaround time from spores to reaping is about six weeks.

Spores and growing expertise are available to the group through cooperation with Penn State University. In addition, USAID has chipped in along with the US Peace Corps.

Smith says mushroom buyers are willing to pay $1,200/kg for button mushrooms, $5,500/kg for oyster mushrooms, and as much as $19,000 for shitake mushrooms.

The NOW collective plans to start slow with production at 25 per cent of capacity and then scale up after the first year.

Pressed as to the feasibility of an import-substitution strategy for mushrooms, Smith said the product's perishability is what will give Jamaican farmers the edge.

"The shelf life of mushrooms is so short that it doesn't make any sense for you to import it from anywhere because you're not really getting the best product," Smith said.

She also pointed to the availability of cold chain facilities to store excess crops.

"We have cold-storage facilities available, and if we fall short, then the Christiana Potato Growers Co-operative can help us with their capacity," she said.

neville.graham@gleanerjm.com